In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: Libraries too important for major cuts

“People have said that the age of the library is probably, you know, ending.” – Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez in a widely circulated comment to a WPLG-ABC10 reporter.

In a county that should be promoting literacy not putting libraries on the chopping block, the mayor’s off-with-their-heads approach to budgeting sounds…well, let me try to be kind because as local mayors come, he’s not the worst of the lot. Shall we say, uninformed?

Clearly, the mayor needs to spend more time reading substantive texts and less Internet troll predictions, more time participating in the diverse cultural programming of his own libraries, more time experiencing what it’s like to be unable to afford a computer or Internet access or cable — and to find a precious computer to use and the opportunity to check out a film at a local library.

If Giménez and Miami-Dade commissioners had an appreciation for the treasures libraries are to their communities, they wouldn’t be considering the closing of half the library branches in the county — 22 out of 49 locations — and laying off 251 library employees to cover the $15 million budget shortfall that resulted from keeping the tax rate flat.

“That’s insane. I’m furious!” says retired librarian Margarita Cano, a key player in the Miami-Dade Library System when the Decade of Progress bond issue in the 1970s provided funding to build the regional libraries we now enjoy. “Libraries are a basic component of a democracy. How many people haven’t been educated in a library? How many people who can’t afford books are dependent on them?”

The massive lay-offs would be a first, Cano says, in a field that was considered “sacrosanct.”

And still is, she argues — and I couldn’t agree more. These library cuts are a disgrace for a city that hosts the nation’s top book fair.

Our libraries — credited with launching some of the first fine-art exhibitions in the county and still a venue for local and student artists to exhibit and discuss their work — have not remained stagnant. They’ve evolved not only with the times with our growing population.

Despite the perception to the contrary, residents do patronize them. From October to April in Miami-Dade alone, the library system circulated 5.3 million materials and saw 3.6 million visitors, reports Library Journal.

People check out not only books on paper but also e-book editions. Librarians help people and children doing research papers and projects not only on paper but also online.

“You still have to know how to ask the question to get to the information — and librarians teach kids this,” Cano tells me.

And our children — particularly those in lower-income communities — need to be immersed in the educational values embedded in books, in the worlds that books open up for them.

In Miami-Dade, 33 percent of third graders read below their grade level. It’s even worse in the city of Miami, where 45 percent of children can’t keep up with their third-grade classmates.

While it is the primary responsibility of parents and schools to teach children to read, libraries play a key supporting role. In some neighborhoods like Lemon City and Shenandoah, they’re gathering places for young and old.

As a young mother starting off a career, I couldn’t feed the voracious reading appetite of my first-born with store-purchased books alone, but thanks to the Miami Lakes Library, we came home every Saturday with armfuls of books on loan.

Libraries offer the best of children’s book publishing because librarians are not just clerks. They’re what curators are to art. They choose what books to stock and their knowledge of their local communities often informs their choices.

As for the wisdom circulated by the uncultivated that libraries are a thing of the past, I offer these statistics culled by the Institute of Museum and Library Services: In the most recent years surveyed, 2000-2010, public libraries nationwide saw 1.57 billion visits, an increase of 32.7 percent.

Instead of cuts to programming that enhances our communities, our county government should be thinking about funding libraries we can be proud of — as we have done with the art and science museums and even with misguided ballparks.

Great cities are home to great libraries.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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